As we get closer to the halfway point of the season and people in the media begin to talk more about free agency, the one name I’m surprised I’m not hearing more is DeMar DeRozan.
DeMar seems to be a bit caught in the trap of playing in what is essentially a small market, being on a team his entire career that hasn’t gotten a great deal of attention. Quietly, though, he has built himself into one of the best SGs in the NBA in the eyes of a lot of teams. On the surface, he takes a lot of crap over some of the analytics—his usage rates and true shooting percentages—but I’ve had multiple clients play with him in Toronto and they all come back raving about his work ethic and competitiveness.
I had a client on Toronto in Masai’s first year as GM who tells a story about DeMar’s reaction to the Rudy Gay trade. When they traded Rudy Gay, the Raptors were on a West Coast trip and there was word around the NBA that as an organization they had made the decision to go all-in on tanking in hopes of getting the first-overall pick. The night after the trade was announced, they were playing the Lakers. Well, Toronto went out and played one of their best games of the year that night. It was the game Kobe came back from his Achilles injury, and everything on paper was set up for the Raptors to roll over, but for whatever reason they didn’t. After that game, they flew back to Toronto and the story goes that when they landed early the next morning, DeMar got off the plane, went right to the arena, met with Masai and told the GM that if the plan was to tank, he had to be moved as well. DeMar, at that young age, took a stand: He wanted his career to be about something. That stand earned a lot of respect from his teammates.
Ultimately, the franchise’s plan to tank fell apart when the Knicks said no to a deal for Kyle Lowry, a move I’m sure New York regrets to this day. And you can point to that weekend as the turning point for the franchise itself—they have been really good ever since.
One thing I find teams often overlook is the value of self-starting, hugely competitive players. Look at Philly right now. When people talk about that team’s lack of veteran leadership, what they’re really noticing is the lack of players who are more than just happy to be there—players who’ve been in the NBA long enough to understand that, aside from the goal of financial security, while you’re in the league you might as well try to make your mark. Over the years, any time I have been to Toronto to watch a client play, the one constant I’ve always noticed is DeMar. Pregame he is always one of the first players out on the court. That was true when he was a rookie and I saw him do it at a game the start of this season. He just seems to be driven to really improve—and he has.
At times it’s struck me as odd that the media and fans in Toronto feel like DeMar is taken for granted. In the NBA, the security of having someone on the perimeter that you know is going to play 75-plus games, usually cover the other team’s best perimeter player and demand to be covered by the other team’s best defender is huge. Consistency in the NBA is the hardest thing to attain.
Toronto has somewhat backed themselves into a corner with the market they’ve set in giving contracts to other players. The last two summers, every team in the league has excused contracts that kind of make you take notice and ask “What was your thinking here?” with the blanket explanation that the TV money and expanding cap will make those deals less noticeable. That very well may end up being the case, but when you give essentially role players—granted very good ones—like DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph 15 million and 8 million per year, respectively, and then double down and give what might be one of the most head-scratching extensions in the NBA to Terrence Ross, you are doing DeMar’s agent’s job for them. I am not saying that Toronto thinks he isn’t, but the idea that DeMar is anything but a max player is ludicrous in comparison to those contracts. If Toronto doesn’t think he is a max player, there are 21 teams in the NBA with max money who are not going to get Kevin Durant this summer. You can bet their second call will be to DeMar.